Into the West, 1860–1880

The Missouri River led explorers, trappers, and migrants into the American West. From the 1820s on, the river was the starting point for tens of thousands of people looking for new lives along the California, Mormon, Oregon, and Santa Fe trails.

Many travelers on the Missouri encountered the Hidatsa and Mandan peoples, who lived in villages along the river. They grew corn, beans, and tobacco and used the river for trade and travel. In the late 1840s, the town of Mua-iduskupe-hises, a Mandan term that means “like a fishhook,” had more residents than any nearby white settlement.



Reproduction of drawing by Edward Goodbird, 1913

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Buffalo Bird Woman gathering wood by boat

Gathering wood for fuel was important work for Mandan and Hidatsa women. The hours spent paddling bullboats along the shorelines made them expert boat handlers. When steamboats arrived on the Missouri, the women began selling wood to the vessels. Buffalo Bird Woman noted that “Near Like-a-Fishhook village, wood was rather scarce because we sold so much of it to steam-boats.”


Encampment of the Travellers on the Missouri

Swiss artist Karl Bodmer was part of an expedition on the Missouri River from 1832 to 1834. His sketches and paintings recorded views of the people, watercraft, and landscapes along the river.

Reproduction of engraving by Karl Bodmer

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Mih-Tutta-HangKusch. A Mandan Village

Mandan Indians maneuver bullboats on land and water. Their village stands on the bluff above the river.

Reproduction of engraving after Karl Bodmer, 1834

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Mandan Bull-Boat, 1908

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Bullboat, 1860

Native peoples along the upper Missouri made small boats like this to travel along the shoreline, carrying wood and other supplies. Formed by stretching animal hides over a supple wood frame, bullboats were typically made by women. French, British, and American fur traders also used bullboats to bring their furs down the Missouri.

Lent by the National Museum of Natural History


The Fire Canoe, Ft. Berthold, North Dakota

A steamboat chugs toward a Mandan village on the Missouri River. The Mandan people called the vessels “fire canoes.”

Reproduction of painting by William de la Montagne Cary, 1874

Courtesy of the Gilcrease Museum


Stern-wheel steamboat Far West

Built at Pittsburgh, 1870

The Far West

The U.S. Army chartered steamboats to supply outposts in Montana and the Dakota Territory during its Indian campaigns. In the summer of 1876, the Far West covered 700 miles of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in only 54 hours. It bore the news of the Sioux and Cheyenne victory over Gen. George Custer’s cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The two tall spars at the front of the boat could be lowered into the river bottom and, with the aid of the capstan and engine power, lift the vessel over shallow areas or obstructions, a bit or “hop” at a time. This practice was called “grasshoppering.”

View object record